The Nets reached the midpoint of their NBA season in a downward spiral, having lost 10 of 12 games before facing the 76ers in a Martin Luther King Day matinee Monday at Barclays Center. Equally discouraging is the fact they only have a 5-10 record with maximum-salary free agent Kyrie Irving in the lineup.
But four games into his return from a right shoulder injury that caused him to miss 26 games, it feels as though Irving is intent on leading a second-half turnaround. After playing 20 minutes in his first game back, Irving’s determination was reflected in his average of 33 minutes over the next three games.
Although the Nets have dropped to 18-23, they remain in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and Irving made it clear the playoffs are a priority even while superstar free agent Kevin Durant rehabs from right Achilles tendon surgery.
“That’s still a goal is to make the playoffs,” Irving said after the Nets were blown out on Saturday by the NBA-best Bucks. “When I say, ‘See where we end up,’ it’s in that six, seven, eight spot. Put a realistic goal in front of you and then really go after it . . . After All-Star break, get everybody back, and I feel we’ll be in a better place.”
Irving laughed when asked what he hopes to achieve in the second half. “Get healthy,” he said. “That’s the most important priority for us.”
Center DeAndre Jordan (dislocated right middle finger), guard Garrett Temple (right knee contusion) and forward Joe Harris (lower back soreness) all sat out against the Bucks. Temple and Harris will return against the 76ers, but forward Wilson Chandler (left hamstring tightness) is out. In the meantime, rookie center Nic Claxton showed promise with 14 points, six rebounds and three blocks against the Bucks and will get more opportunity while Jordan and Chandler are out.
Irving offered an interesting insight into the leadership role he is attempting to play with Claxton. “I texted him probably about a week ago,” Irving said. “I told him that a lot of us in this locker room have our arm around him and are watching him and just making sure he’s progressing.”
During the Bucks loss, Irving and Durant had an animated sideline discussion, and Irving shared the essence of their conversation.
“The most important thing is we have the same intent, we have the same goal,” Irving said. “It’s to win a championship here together. When I say ‘together,’ I mean the whole entire group just so everyone knows. But when me and KD are talking, it really comes with a very passionate energy. We just want to play well. I know he wants to get back out there.
“He’s seeing things that I can improve on out there just leading the team out there, getting guys involved, being more aggressive. We also bring up the future and how we can implement each other and where he sees he can be implemented . . . I miss him, and at the same time, we all do. But we’re just talking, going back and forth, throwing ideas out. It’s good to have a best friend in the league.”